PAGE | 1 | 2 |But that's exactly what happened. Laidig believes, in retrospect, that he was one of a number of moderate Republicans targeted by elements of their own party as vulnerable candidates in the run-up to the 2000 races. "And it became a different kind of party," he says. "Suddenly all of these religious litmus tests were going on, and they were getting support in the churches. My father was a very conservative minister, and very politically active. But never once did he bring the pulpit to politics, and he never brought politics to the pulpit."
On April 1, 2000, the GOP held its endorsing convention for the District 56 Senate seat. Laidig was immediately put off when he saw a number of new delegates—churchgoers. He also realized that they were against him, calling him "a Republican in name only," despite his 30 years of service to the party. To his surprise, he had an opponent—Michele Bachmann—and was caught off-guard. Bachmann won the endorsement on the first ballot. (The two went on to face off in the primary, which Bachmann won.)
"It hit me like a tsunami," Laidig says. "I heard the rumble out there, but I never thought the wave would come."
"Republican Senator Loses Endorsement Over Profile," read a post-mortem headline on the Maple River website. "Senator Laidig is known as the senator who for years has been opposing the party platform, and local activists wanted to support a candidate who would support them at the legislature," the story said in reference to the religious-right voting bloc that ousted Laidig.
The story went on to contend that "Dr. Bachmann herself, who had no intention of running, was shocked by her victory," and that a "spontaneous and genuine draft effort" had convinced Bachmann to run. "I came in wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and moccasins, and I had no makeup on at all," the story quotes Bachmann as saying. "I had not one piece of literature, I had made not one phone call, and spent not five cents and I did not solicit a vote."
"Absolute bullshit," Laidig says now. "She planned this all along."
WHILE Michele Bachmann was rising through the political ranks, her husband Marcus—a lumbering, soft-featured man—was working toward a psychology doctorate and a practice in Lake Elmo. There is an overt Christian theme attached to the practice. "Bachmann and Associates believes in providing all clients with quality counseling in a Christian environment," reads the mission statement on the business's website. Some of the listed specialties of the clinic and its counselors include "abuse issues," "co-dependency," "men's and women's issues," "shame," and "spiritual issues."
But some observers claim that the mission of the practice includes counseling homosexuals in an effort to "ungay" them. "It is absolutely sincere," adds former school board member Cecconi. "They specialize in 'reparation' regarding sexual orientation."Marcus Bachmann, who is also 50, denies that is part of his clinic's practice. "That's a false statement," he says, refusing to answer any questions that don't have to do with Bachmann and Associates. "Am I aware that the perception is out there? I can't comment on that." Still, Bachmann offers, "If someone is interested in talking to us about their homosexuality, we are open to talking about that. But if someone comes in a homosexual and they want to stay homosexual, I don't have a problem with that."
Questions about his work aside, Marcus Bachmann has never played much of a public role in his wife's campaigns, and neither her allies nor her detractors seem to know much about him. But many believe he has played a huge part in the evolution of Michele Bachmann's religious convictions and, in turn, her political career. At the GOP endorsing convention in May, he worked the floor of delegates for his wife. Before that, he had gone on the political offensive. "She's pro-life, pro-family, and knows the values of the [Sixth] district," he told the Stillwater Courier in March 2006. "Whatever's left, she'll eat for dessert." He added that his wife would "eat up" Patty Wetterling in the general election.
Stepbrother Michael LaFave remembers that the Bachmanns' born-again identity started to cause divisions in the family sometime in the mid-1980s. "She kind of went all the way back to the Old Testament, and wouldn't eat pork and things like that," LaFave says. "Things got much more rigid around them. She got into it very deeply. I don't want to say she went off the deep end, but you might say something like that." With respect to Marcus Bachmann, LaFave says he has always "purposely stayed at arm's length. We just chit-chat about the family when we see each other."
On the campaign trail, Michele Bachmann has said her husband grew up on a family dairy farm in western Wisconsin. According to a brief biography that ran in the Forest Lake Times when Bachmann and Associates opened an office there in March 2005, he earned a master's degree in counseling from Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a school then affiliated with Christian Broadcasting Network pitchman Pat Robertson. Bachmann later was awarded a doctorate in clinical psychology from an institution listed as Union Graduate School on his clinic's website, an apparent reference to Union Institute in Cincinnati, though nothing on either of the Bachmanns' public résumés suggests they ever lived in Ohio.
Last November, the Bachmanns attended a "Minnesota Pastors' Summit" at Grace Church in Eden Prairie. Some 300 religious leaders participated in the event, which was organized by the conservative, antigay Minnesota Family Council. Michele Bachmann was there to lead a session on the gay marriage amendment, while Marcus offered a presentation titled "The Truth About the Homosexual Agenda."
Curt Prins, a 35-year-old marketing executive from Minneapolis, attended. Prins, who is gay, says he went because he was "curious" and wanted to "understand the language" of the antigay movement. "There was so much bile, I nearly had to leave," Prins recalls. For Marcus Bachmann's session, Prins says there were more than 100 people crammed in a room at Grace, and most of the presentation involved stereotypes of gays. "He was saying how homosexuality was a choice, that it was not genetics," Prins says. "He was claiming there was a high predominance of sexual abuse in the GLBT community. There was no research to back any of this up." (Marcus Bachmann refused to answer questions about the seminar.)
The climax of the presentation was when, according to Prins, Bachmann brought up "three ex-gays, like part of a PowerPoint presentation." The trio, two white men and a black woman, all testified that they had renounced their homosexuality. "One of them said, 'If I was born gay, then I'll have to be born again,'" Prins recalls. "The crowd went crazy.""Listening to him," Prins surmises, "it becomes clear that he's had a huge impact on her. He might be the spearhead of this whole religious/gay issue." Shortly after Bachmann announced her candidacy for U.S. Congress, there was an announcement on a website called the Minnesota Christian Chronicle. "Michele is a compassionate, intelligent woman of integrity who has a calling in her life. I am confident in Michele's ability to serve the constituents superbly well in the Sixth District," Marcus Bachmann was quoted as saying. "As her husband, I fully endorse Michele running for U.S. Congress. I am so thankful for her Christian testimony. She is a servant who honors Christ."
But Michele Bachmann's Christian testimony has not endeared her to everyone in her family. When Bachmann held a hearing on the gay marriage ban at the Capitol last April, she got a rude surprise: Sitting just a few feet away was her stepsister, Helen LaFave, who chose the occasion to come out publicly for the first time, with her partner of 20 years in attendance. "This issue has been very hurtful to me personally, and divisive for our family," LaFave told the Star Tribune at the time. Bachmann said at the time that she had taken a family vote on the gay marriage ban, and that family members favored it by a 6-3 margin. But both Michael and Helen LaFave insist she never spoke to them about it. Helen LaFave added that Bachmann ignored letters LaFave had sent her about the matter.
(Helen LaFave, 46, declined to be interviewed for this story, saying, "My dad is in his 80s now, and it's too much to have all of this out there for him.")
"I've got to be clear that I've always been kind of proud of Michele," Michael LaFave says cautiously. That all went sour, though, as Bachmann increasingly became the face of the efforts to ban gay marriage at the Capitol. LaFave had no choice but to take things personally: "I wrote her an e-mail, and asked very nicely why she had to carry the water on this, knowing that my father has a gay daughter. How could she discriminate against Helen?
"She's out there courting a family values agenda, but she's saying things about her own family that's not true," he claims. "She could have been talking to the voters the whole time about having a gay sister," he says. "That at least would have been honest. Dick Cheney had the good sense to do that with his daughter. He had the good sense to know not to engage the base, to not get involved in the debate, because he knew how much it would hurt his daughter. If anyone spent the most time together between the LaFaves and the Ambles," LaFave concludes, "it was Michele and Helen.
"What I'd say to Michele is that you've got a situation here that you didn't have to create. You didn't have to go about it this way," he says, and pauses before announcing he'll likely vote for Patty Wetterling. "I'd say, 'Michele, for all of this, you've lost your family. You've lost my vote.'"
WHEN Bachmann won the GOP endorsement for the Sixth CD, she used a familiar strategy: Overturn the old-school delegates with new ones from the church. With that, she defeated two longtime and well-known Republicans—State Rep. Jim Knoblauch and State Sen. Phil Krinkie—to run as the Republican candidate for the U.S. House. But this time no one was particularly surprised. The political landscape has shifted in Bachmann's favor.
The Sixth, which runs northwest from Stillwater past St. Cloud, is odd political terrain. Little more than a decade ago, much of it was rural, but now it's full of bedroom communities, new highway interchanges, and McMansions. The Sixth is the whitest district in the state (95 percent) and the median household income is $60,893, some $16,000 above the national average, according to 2004 census numbers. In the last presidential election, George W. Bush received 57 percent of the Sixth District vote, even though he lost the state of Minnesota. All of this would seem to favor Bachmann.
But the Sixth District is also home to some folks with strong libertarian leanings. Many working-class and first-time voters turned out there in 1998 to help propel Jesse Ventura to the governor's mansion. And Paul Wellstone twice captured significant votes in some enclaves of the district. It's unlikely that Bachmann's past on social issues and school reform would attract these people. (Just last week, polls released by Emily's List regarding "five competitive House districts" showed a narrow gap in the Sixth, with Bachmann at 44 percent to Wetterling's 41 percent.)
And it's clear, on the stump, that she knows this. One weekday evening in early August, there was a debate at the VFW in Forest Lake between Bachmann and the Independence Party's John Binkowski. (Wetterling did not participate.) Bachmann talked of a permanent repeal of the "death tax," and mentioned that she was a tax attorney no fewer than five times. "I am a federal tax attorney," she said at one point, calling for an overhaul of the U.S. tax code. "That's my background and my profession."
She then called for more "local control" in the public schools. But if you get Bachmann off those two issues, she's on less certain footing. Take this answer to a question about raising the minimum wage: "In Minnesota, we have only 3.6 percent unemployment. We are the workingest state in the nation. We have more two-income families than any state in the nation. We have more women in the work force than any state in the nation. We have more people working two or three jobs than anywhere else." She concluded that "minimum wage in this state is not a big issue." The book on Bachmann, and it's at times very apparent, is that when she's off-message, she's doomed.
A few days earlier, Bachmann was on a congressional candidate panel at Farm Fest 2006, in Redwood Falls, far out of her district. There were displays of farm equipment everywhere, and about 300 people had gathered under a white tent to hear the candidates field questions. Bachmann immediately made a point of saying she "married a dairy farmer" and spoke of the days when she and Marcus would milk the cows on his father's farm."That's something that certainly doesn't fit with my image of Michele," chuckles Michael LaFave when told of this. Bachmann is petite to the point of looking frail. She often is surrounded by people—supporters, staffers, fellow politicians, Marcus—who seem intent on sheltering her from any outside forces. From a distance, she looks youthful and composed. Up close, she appears at once older and less self-assured. In short, she's made for television. At Farm Fest, she looked completely out of her element.
There were complicated questions about farm policy—What's your stance on crop insurance? Should the current farm bill be extended?—that, in fairness, made sense to only four or five of the nine candidates on the panel. But while some candidates simply admitted as much, Bachmann repeatedly referred to "marrying into a farm family" in weaving answers that never quite got around to the questions.
In response to a complex question about setting up a permanent disaster fund for farmers and ranchers who raise beef cattle, Wetterling balked and admitted she didn't really understand the question or have an answer. Bachmann, by contrast, dove right in. "I appreciate the question, because on our dairy farm, we raise beef cattle as well," she began. "One thing we can never, ever, ever get away from is that we are not two separate entities: Commodities. Livestock. If there's anything that can interact, it's commodities and livestock. Without commodities, you don't have livestock. It's just that simple."
She concluded by noting that, as a mother of the sum of 28 children, she has learned that when families don't get fed, "they get cranky."
This drew a small chuckle from the crowd, but it was an uncomfortable one. One farmer turned to the one sitting next to him, shaking his head. "What the fuck is she talking about?" he wanted to know.
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